Seven years for Kerry man who killed man who set fire to car in family driveway

Seven years for Kerry man who killed man who set fire to car in family driveway
Blake Sweeney

A 21-year-old man who stabbed another man to death after failing to listen to the "wise counsel" of his mother to stay at home has been jailed for seven years for manslaughter.

Sentencing Blake Sweeney today at the Central Criminal Court, Mr Justice Tony Hunt said there was no need for the defendant to arm himself with a knife and great harm had been done with a young man losing his life.

"His mother's wiser counsel did not prevail at the time," noted the judge, adding that she saw her son searching for a knife in the kitchen press after the deceased set fire to a car in the Sweeney family's driveway and told him to stay at home.

However, the judge said there was no reason to believe that Sweeney would have "taken up arms" that night but for the conduct of the deceased man.

In July, Blake Sweeney of Fertha Drive, Cahersiveen, Kerry was found not guilty of murder but guilty of the manslaughter of Robert Elston (33) of Lisselton at Fertha Drive on May 23, 2018. Sweeney had offered to plead guilty to manslaughter but the Director of Public Prosecutions refused to accept the plea.

Deputy State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan told the trial that the cause of death was two stab wounds and in particular noted one to Mr Elston's back that entered to a depth of 18cm and severed the aorta.

Passing sentence today, Mr Justice Hunt said this was a "tragic case", where the defendant had pursued the deceased with a knife and the full defence of self-defence was not available to him. The judge said he understood the jury's verdict to mean that the force used by Sweeney was "reasonably proportionate" to the circumstances of the case.

The judge said for reasons that remain "totally unclear", Mr Elston had left a house armed with an axe before he banged on the Sweeney's door and started a fire. Sweeney was asleep in the front room of his home and a family member had tried to put out the fire which constituted serious danger, said Mr Justice Hunt.

He pointed out that Sweeney got dressed and his mother saw him searching for a knife in the kitchen press. However, she told him to stay in the house but instead he went in pursuit of Mr Elston, where an altercation took place between the two men. Sweeney inflicted two stab wounds to the abdomen of the deceased.

The judge emphasised that the defendant had maintained that the deceased was in possession of an axe. "I'm satisfied from the accused that his account is correct and I'm also satisfied that the jury reached its conclusion to manslaughter on this basis," he said.

Before delivering the sentence this morning, Mr Justice Hunt noted that Sweeney had cooperated with gardaí by giving immediate and accurate accounts of the incident. "He assisted gardaí in the recovery of the knife, which was discovered in a back garden," he commented, adding that his cooperation with authorities had continued beyond this.

Having regard to the gravity of the offence, the judge said the harm done was very great as a young man had lost his life. The loss of Mr Elston was felt in particular by the deceased's mother and his young son, said Mr Justice Hunt, adding that this was not the first tragedy to occur in the Elston family as Mr Elston's father had been stabbed to death in an unrelated incident years earlier.

"Their loss and grief will continue long after any such sentence expires," he continued.

Aggravating factors in the case included the significant nature of harm caused, the fact Sweeney pursued Mr Elston over a "considerable distance" and entered the house armed with a knife.

The judge said Sweeney was entitled to be frightened by Mr Elston's action of setting fire to the car at his family home but there was no need for him to arm himself with a knife. "His mother's wiser counsel did not prevail at the time," he added.

The judge said the appropriate headline sentence was 10 years and he was satisfied this case belonged at the top end of the mid-range category of manslaughter offences.

In mitigation, he noted that there was an absence of premeditation and planning as well as the fact he had offered to plead guilty to manslaughter prior to the trial. "There is no reason to believe he would have taken up arms that night but for the conduct of Mr Elston," he said.

Other mitigating factors included that Sweeney had expressed genuine remorse since the killing and offered gardai continued cooperation. The judge said the defendant comes from a decent family and his mother, who gave evidence at the trial, seemed like a "very decent person".

Sweeney's 22 previous convictions, all at District Court level, were not particularly relevant, said the judge. Six convictions were for burglary and two for theft.

As a result of the mitigating circumstances, the judge said he would reduce the headline sentence from ten years to eight years and six months in prison. Following this, he said he would suspend part of the sentence in order to incentivise rehabilitation.

Sweeney was sentenced to eight years and six months imprisonment with the last 18 months suspended, backdated to May 23, 2018 when he went into custody.

Addressing the court before Sweeney was led away by prison officers, Mr Justice Hunt asked the prosecution to pass on his condolences to the deceased's family. While this was also a tragedy for the defendant, the judge noted that he was alive and would be able to resume his life at some stage.

Sentence Hearing:

At last month's sentence hearing on October 14, Detective Garda Bat Lynch told prosecution counsel Tim O'Leary SC that the deceased came to Sweeney's home on the evening of May 23 and set fire to Mr Sweeney's brother's car. Sweeney, who had been asleep, woke up when the fire started and would later tell gardaí that Mr Elston was outside shouting and holding an axe.

Sweeney and his brother put out the fire while Mr Elston went to another house in Fertha Drive. Sweeney arrived at the same house a short time later armed with a knife. He banged on the door and demanded entry, Garda Lynch said. A woman who was living there at the time let him in.

Garda Lynch agreed with Mr O'Leary that a fight started in the sitting room of the house that ended with the death of Mr Elston. He agreed that the accused had said from the outset that Mr Elston had an axe during the fight and an axe was found in the house which had Sweeney's DNA on it. Mr Justice Hunt said one of the bases to justify a manslaughter verdict was that the jury found it reasonably possible that the deceased was armed with an axe.

He added: "If it wasn't for the fact that an axe was produced there was so little justification [for Sweeney pursuing Elston with a knife] that murder would have been likely."

Mr Justice Hunt said the tragedy of Mr Elston's death could have been avoided if Sweeney had listened to his mother who told him not to leave the house after the deceased set fire to a car in the Sweeney family's driveway. Mr Justice Hunt said: "He should have listened to his mother... She could see there was no need for it. Mr Elston made poor decisions in setting things off but Mr Sweeney pursued him down the road with tragic consequences."

Following the death Sweeney led gardaí to an eight-inch "butcher" knife which he said he took from his house and used to stab Mr Elston. Sweeney had dropped it in an alleyway after leaving the scene but immediately pointed out its location when gardai arrived.

Garda Lynch agreed with defence counsel Mark Nicholas SC that Sweeney appeared genuinely remorseful and shocked at what had happened. He gave his version of events to gardaí, when they arrived.

The deceased's brother David Elston wrote an impact statement in which he said his brother had been a devoted father. His son did not leave his father's side for the first five years of his life, he said. He added: "They weren't just father and son, they were best friends. The bond between them would make me so happy."

He described the family's devastation since his death and the toll it has taken on their mother who now seldom leaves her bedroom. The deceased had a caring and loving bond with all his family but following their father's death from a stabbing he made "poor decisions" and began drinking and using drugs, he said.

He added: "But he would give you his last ten euro or help a neighbour to throw turf or just be an ear to listen."

Mr Nicholas asked Mr Justice Hunt to consider his client's early offer to plead guilty to manslaughter and that the deceased was carrying an axe. He said his previous convictions were not an aggravating factor and added: "This was a case of two reasonably good, decent people making stupid decisions." Mr Justice Hunt responded: "If they both had their time over none of this would happen."

Mr Justice Hunt said he would have to take into account that Sweeney took a knife to the scene but he would also consider that the deceased had an axe. He added that he would look at court decisions relating to David Mahon, who was sentenced to seven years having been convicted of manslaughter for stabbing 23-year-old Dean Fitzpatrick to death in 2013. Justice Hunt said this "seems to be the same sort of situation".

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